As many of you know, our law firm routinely litigates what I believe to be some of the most difficult cases that a lawyer can take on – inmate medical neglect cases. After we retain a client who we believe has been the victim of inmate medical neglect, perhaps the most important and difficult decision we have to make at the outset of the case is deciding whether to sue the correctional staff who were responsible for the neglect in federal or state court.
It is a complicated decision that forces us to take account of many different factors, but the final decision invariably comes down to our evaluation of just two of these factors: (1) the severity level of the neglect; (2) the venue that we believe affords our client the best chance to prevail in their lawsuit.
Severity Level of Neglect
In many ways, successfully proving an inmate medical neglect case in federal court is more challenging simply because of the nature of proof that is required. Suing correctional staff in federal court requires an inmate to prove that the medical neglect he or she experienced was so severe that it amounted to a violation of the inmate’s 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. To meet this standard, the inmate must establish that correctional staff knew about his or her serious medical need and were deliberately indifferent to it.
The standard essentially boils down to an inmate proving two things: (1) during their incarceration, he or she had a serious medical need that was either diagnosed by a doctor, or was so obvious that even a layperson would have known that the need was serious; (2) correctional staff knew that the need was serious but choose to ignore it which resulted in the inmate sustaining a serious injury.
These cases are extremely challenging because many courts throughout this country have found that proving deliberate indifference requires an inmate to prove more than mere negligence (i.e., a mistake in medical decision making) or even gross negligence. Instead, in this setting, the inmate must meet the higher burden of proving that correctional staff were reckless in their disregard of the inmate’s serious medical need.
Truthfully, most deliberate indifferent cases get dismissed by a judge before they are even heard by a jury because the inmate is simply unable to meet this burden of proof.
Also, in almost every deliberate indifference case, the inmate must contend with the correctional facility’s assertion that the legal doctrine of qualified immunity protects them from suit under the specific facts of the case. This doctrine essentially holds that the inmate must be able to point to a prior judicial decision, factually similar to their case, where a court held that correctional staff were deliberately indifferent to an inmate’s medical needs. Because inmates oftentimes cannot identify such a prior decision, their cases more often than not get dismissed before making it to trial.
If an inmate is unable to meet this admittedly high burden of proof, they can choose to bring their medical neglect case in state court.
To successfully prove a medical neglect case in state court, an inmate must essentially show that a correctional doctor, nurse or officer failed to provide them with the level of care that a reasonable doctor, nurse, or officer in a similar community would have provided under similar circumstances. In other words, to be successful in proving a medical neglect case in state court, an inmate need only show that a mistake was made by a correctional care provider that a reasonable provider would not have made under similar circumstances. A “recklessness” showing is not required under these circumstances.
Although at first glance, these types of cases may appear to be fraught with less legal hurdles (and sometimes this is in fact the case), they become more complicated and challenging when the medical neglect claim is made against a correctional officer, as opposed to a doctor or nurse who privately contracted with the jail or prison. In the former circumstance, the correctional officer can claim immunity from suit under the doctrine of official immunity, which protects corrections officers from suit in cases where the court finds that officers alleged negligent conduct was discretionary.
In deciding whether to pursue an inmate medical neglect case in state or federal court, we also focus on the venue which we believe affords our client the best chance of success at trial. In the past, we have decided to initiate medical neglect lawsuits in state court because we believed that the surrounding people demographic in the state court venue would lend itself to us potentially seating jurors who would be more open minded to our client’s case. Inmate medical neglect cases are challenging enough in terms of simply proving the case legally, whether they are pursued in federal or state court, and as such, it is incumbent that the inmate’s attorney does his or her best to venue the case where he or she believes that potential jurors will at least give their client a fair chance.
Conversely, we have sometimes decided to initiate medical neglect lawsuits in federal court because we believed that the particular state court venue was likely to possess potential jurors who were less inclined to hold the correctional facility, which was a long-standing fixture in their community, responsible for its actions.
Bottom line, there are significant challenges to pursuing an inmate medical neglect case in either federal or state court. The decision as to where the case should be venued ultimately must be made by the client working in tandem with an attorney who has experiencing litigating these types of cases in both state and federal court. Our law firm happens to have deep experience litigating such cases in either venue.
If you believe that you or a loved one has been the victim of inmate medical neglect, please contact our law firm so that we can discuss your potential case with you. Consultations are free and we receive no attorney compensation unless we are able to obtain compensation for you.
Oliver E. Nelson III is a trial attorney whose practice consists of handling civil rights and medical malpractice cases. He was voted a Minnesota Super Lawyer in 2021.